The future of bars
Going to a bar has never been just about having a drink. Be it a dive joint, public house, tasting room or wine bar, it’s the overall experience, the potential for convivial exchange with friends old or new, that drives folks to belly up to a bar instead of spending cocktail hour in front of the TV at home.
Well, that was then; this is now. COVID-19 has caused bars of all types to stop and rethink the way they serve patrons in order to survive. For those that haven’t opened back up to the public, it has meant finding new ways to generate revenue besides simply getting guests in seats.
“We’re starting to see bars and restaurants open and then close back down. I’m not sure how long that’s going to go on, but it’s not sustainable,” said certified sommelier, wine educator and consultant Alisha Blackwell-Calvert. In lieu of in-person events, Blackwell-Calvert, who has worked at such establishments as Reeds American Table and Elaia, said she’s been doing more virtual tasting events with retail partners like Parker’s Table and The Wine Merchant, an option she thinks bars should explore as well.
“I think we’ll also see the curbside [sales] option become even more of a thing,” Blackwell-Calvert said, adding that sommeliers will need to get creative in the ways they sell wine curbside by getting more involved in pairing wines with food orders, just as they would if they were working the floor.
Vicia bar manager Phil Ingram said the restaurant, which currently only offers distanced outdoor seating, had good results selling bottled drinks and DIY cocktail kits. The key to success in the to-go realm, he believes, is to offer something unique the customer can’t easily replicate on their own, “not just a Negroni.”
It’s also imperative for venues to play to their strengths and capitalize on every aspect of business. Ted Kilgore, co-owner of Planter’s House and Small Change, said he’s trying to pivot from a primary focus on cocktails to bolstering interest in the Planter’s House food menu. To-go cocktail orders are required to be accompanied by food, and Kilgore hopes carryout meal sales will augment what Planter’s House makes from drinks.
For owners who have decided to keep their doors open to serve the public, the challenges are myriad and daunting.
“We’re taking every precaution we can,” said Kilgore, whose establishments reopened for in-house service in July. New measures include plexiglass barriers between booths, no bar seating and reduced hours of operation. Front and back doors at both spaces remain open during service for ventilation and patrons have limited time at their tables, a system the company has employed at its annual holiday-themed pop-up bars, Sippin’ Santa and Miracle. Even drink recipes have been altered to reduce the number of touches per drink, with traditional garnishes like lemon twists and lime wheels replaced by sprays of liqueurs, tinctures and other liquid ingredients for aromatics.
Both Planter’s House and Small Change remained closed for almost four months, and coming back has been hard, Kilgore said. When the bars reopened, staff were anxious about keeping everyone safe. Instituting good policies only goes so far. A surprising – and disappointing – number of patrons won’t respect the mask requirement. During the first week back, Kilgore said he had to eject several patrons who either refused to wear a mask upon entering or later removed it.
“People don’t understand how much they touch things,” said Small Change bar manager Harrison Massie. “Whenever they touch something, I have to disinfect [that surface].” That goes for pillars in the main seating area as well as tables and the bar top. He’s taken to pouring water on the bar to discourage guests from leaning on it.
“Before, you had to make sure people didn’t drink too much. Now, we also have to make sure they can understand cartoons,” Kilgore said, referring to the graphics posted around both spaces detailing the requirements for masks and social distancing. “It’s nerve-wracking.”
“We have so many signs,” Massie said. “We just keep adding more.”
In some ways, though, Kilgore said he’s OK if things never return to the way they were.
“We’ve always had issues with large groups in our spaces,” he said, such as patrons standing at the bar and then wandering away or switching seats, making it difficult for staff to keep track of their tabs and deliver their orders. “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to non-hosted seating. We have the opportunity to control [the space] now. If people are used to not standing at the bar, [service] will be easier for us. We have the opportunity to design our own vibe.” Smaller groups also mean customers will receive better service and enjoy a less frenetic atmosphere, Kilgore said.
“Our normal will not be what it was. It will be what we dictate, as opposed to people dictating to us,” Kilgore said. He has no tolerance for those who don’t follow the bars’ policies and has no problem asking customers to leave if they won’t comply. “If they’re [not observing the rules], they don’t respect our space and they don’t respect us, and therefore, we don’t want them there. We don’t need their money.”
In moving toward whatever the new normal may be, Earthbound Beer co-founder Stuart Keating is ready for bars and restaurants to look radically different from what we’re used to. “You’re going to see a lot of outside dining and maybe the final death of table service. We’ve seen a push toward fast-casual anyway.”
Keating envisions changes in bars’ physical spaces, with an increase in creative outdoor concepts like the new 9 Mile Garden in Affton. He thinks we’ll be seeing more semi-enclosed collaborations, maybe consisting of what he referred to as a series of “farmers market stalls,” which would have plumbing and electricity and could be rented by bar and restaurant owners.
In addition to reimagining physical spaces and service models, Keating said there needs to be larger changes. “I think for a lot of owner/operator-style bars and breweries, we have to see a fundamental change in the way society operates if we’re going to keep doing what we do,” he said. Bars would have to charge customers more for drinks and food in order to cover what it actually costs to run a place. That means customers would have to be willing to pay more. Keating also said initiatives like universal health care and an increase in social services would mean small businesses and their employees wouldn’t be so decimated when crises like COVID hit. But, for now, Keating doesn’t blame those for whom COVID was the final straw – who are looking for jobs with more security.
“This is the biggest disruption to the brewing industry since Prohibition. It’s very sad,” he said. “The city’s culture is formed by the bars and restaurants – that’s where the conversations are had, the music is played, the ideas are hatched and everything else. I don’t know what to do if we don’t have that.” Keating is worried about the survival of independent breweries, bars and restaurants – worried that without more help, large corporate chains are the only businesses that will make it through this.
Whatever the answers may be for overcoming the many challenges COVID presents for bar owners, it’s clear they’re not going to be found any time soon.
“I’m going to plant my flag and say that I think there will be some normalcy that comes back to us, because I really don’t want to see that world if it doesn’t,” said Blackwell-Calvert. “I don’t think it’s going to be this year though.”
Keating sees a long trek back to business as usual. “I think we’re looking at a multi-year problem right now. As best we can tell, this is going to go on for several years, possibly half a decade or longer,” he said. “Assuming things go well.”
For his part, Kilgore isn’t looking too far ahead; right now, he’s concerned with getting through the rest of the year. Increasing restrictions in the city haven’t affected Planter’s House and Small Change because they were already operating at a low capacity due to spacing. Because so much of their seating is currently set up outdoors, determining a strategy for the winter months is now a pressing concern.
“Our best-case scenario is if we can break even or not lose too much money, we might be able to make it to next year,” Kilgore said. “But we’ll make it. It’s just a matter of figuring it out.”
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